When I was a kid, the periodic delivery of the latest Hammacher Schlemmer or Sharper Image catalogue was a highly anticipated event. I’d sit cross-legged on the front porch, eagerly flipping through the shiny pages and circling the futuristic items that would transform our mundane home into something out of Inspector Gadget. This was before iPhones and iPads, when my idea of cool technology was an electric blue shower radio or a heated, full body massage chair. I did convince Mom and Dad to buy the former; it broke within a week. But I didn’t care much. Soon, there would be another catalogue—and another must-have toy.
Over the years, the pace of our consumer culture has only grown more rapid. Today’s novelty is tomorrow’s commodity. Our desire for the product du jour morphs from want to need faster than you can say Kindle. Some have called this trend disturbing. Others, like French artist Jacques Carelman, have called it hilarious.
In 1969, Carelman published his own catalogue of sorts. His Catalogue of Fantastic Inventions contained precisely what its title suggests: objects that make perfect sense in theory, but are totally nonfunctional in practice. Examples include a glass-headed hammer for “those delicate jobs,” a remote-control iron for doing chores without getting up, and a two-piece jigsaw puzzle of the Mona Lisa, “ideal for inexperienced beginners and those not blessed with patience.” Carelman’s inventions did not exist in real life. The 200 sketches that comprise his book were meant as parodies of the items one typically finds in a mail-order catalogue. “My objects are perfectly useless,” he said, “the opposite of the gadgets our consumer society is so greedy for.”
The first edition of Carelman’s book sold 100,000 copies in France, and was subsequently published in the United States. A few years later, Carelman decided to build his popular illustrations into three-dimensional objects. His collection became a critically acclaimed traveling exhibit, finding audiences at the Louvre and in New York. Today, his “coffeepot for masochists” (in which the handle and spout are on the same side), his “lace condom,” his “comb for bald men,” and many other absurd creations are still available for purchase. The book, however, has virtually disappeared from shelves. It seems that Carelman’s marvelous Catalogue, like so many novelties before it, has gone the way of the Walkman.
Still, there are lessons to be learned from Carelman’s whimsical take on consumer culture. “I make people take another look at things that are so familiar they don’t see them anymore,” he said of his work. “I clean people’s eyes.” This idea of “cleaning people’s eyes” applies to all art forms, particularly to literature. As readers, our favorite books are often the ones that strike us as surprising, yet real. As writers, our goal is to depict the ordinary in extraordinary ways. When we hit on a detail, a gesture, or a phrase that brings to light some small truth that has gone unrecognized, it has been a good day at the keyboard. For me, these moments don’t happen often, but I try to remain conscious of this question: How can I turn the familiar on its head?
The answer, I’m learning, has a lot to do with play. A teacher recently told me that for the first time in ages, he is enjoying the writing process. The reason, he said, is that he has abandoned the notion of writing “Serious Literature” and has simply committed to having fun. Likewise, Carelman seemed chiefly concerned with amusement—his readers’ and his own. His intent may have been a cultural critique, but above all, his aim was humor. “Children react the best,” he said. “Intellectuals second best.” His work resonates on multiple levels, which I believe makes it more poignant than a so-called “serious” attack on materialism.
Nearly two years ago, when I entered graduate school, I didn’t understand the potency of humor. I have been known to laugh at highly inappropriate moments, yet it didn’t occur to me to allow this aspect of my personality to filter into my work. Instead, I wrote in a controlled style that I wasn’t particularly good at, nor did I enjoy. George Saunders, who visits my MFA program this week, once experienced a similar problem. “When I was younger, I had this idea that if you weren’t very smart, humor was a fallback,” Saunders recalled in a 2004 Tin House interview. “Life, of course, was earnest, real, intellectual, and very serious, but if you’re a moron, then go ahead and get your laugh.” What Saunders learned—and what Carelman knew instinctively—is that art can be both playful and earnest. When handled by masters like Saunders, comedy is not a cop out, but a way of viewing the world. This outlook, Saunders argues, acknowledges the ephemeral nature of everything we deem “serious,” even life itself. Similarly, Carelman’s Catalogue reminds us that even the most novel objects are temporary—and that we are temporary, too.
This morning, with Mother’s and Father’s Day on the horizon, I logged onto Carelman’s website. I had hoped to find a gift that would not be left to collect silt in my parents’ basement. To my surprise, a window popped up informing me that Jacques Carelman had died on March 29, 2012. Yet even this sad announcement retained a light tone. “We will say that he has gone [on] tour,” the message said, “creating, entertaining, and exposing his works for some place.” Wherever he is now, no doubt this great humorist is already crafting invisible chairs for ghosts or levitating toilets for angels. It’s comforting to imagine, and most importantly, it makes me laugh.
Kate Schmier is an MFA student at Sarah Lawrence College. She hails from Birmingham, Michigan and now lives in New York City. She is the recent recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation grant for emerging writers.